Graphic Novels for MBAs

14 June 2016

This post was originally published on Public Books.

Over the course of the two-year program at Harvard Business School, an MBA student will read over 500 case studies. They range in length from a single page to over 50, but their format is typically the same: a description of an ambiguous scenario that forces students to read actively and decide for themselves what exactly is going on. But “Apple’s Core,” a 2014 reimagining of an original 2008 prose edition by Harvard Business School professor Noam Wasserman, would be almost unrecognisable to many of those students. Not because of what it contains—a study of the origins of Apple and the conflict between co-founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak—but because of how it’s presented. This may be a case study, but it’s also a graphic novel.

“Apple’s Core” begins with a page split into two large panels, like a title slide on a PowerPoint. The top of the page features a diptych of two photorealistic covers of Time magazine, side by side: one shows a computer being named “Machine of the Year,” the other Steve Jobs. In the bottom, larger panel is a ruggedly handsome Steve Wozniak; we know he’s Steve Wozniak because stamped in a text box across his chest are the words “Steve Wozniak: Co-Founder of Apple.” He stands outside the frame, staring angrily into a space beyond both the panel and the reader, speaking to a gaggle of reporters. A three-tiered speech bubble stretches diagonally from Wozniak’s gaping mouth: “Steve Jobs did not do a single circuit, design, or piece of code.”

Graphic novels and business school case studies seem like very unlikely bedfellows. Case studies are a corporate genre, designed to teach proto-professionals how to become the man; comics are an underground, avant-garde art form, tied to countercultural movements that want to stick it to him. Yet both comics and case studies often assume the role of teacher-cum-therapist, demanding that readers engage directly with the text to fill in the blanks and complete the psychological dramas.

Case studies in graphic form join the growing trend of the comification of textbooks. Classics Illustrated, a series of comic book versions of literary classics, began publication in 1941 with The Three Musketeers. The adaptations, which feature gleefully garish covers and art of dubious quality, were immediately popular; from 1941 to 1962, the series sold 200 million copies. In the 1960s the series stopped putting out new titles due to competition from cheap paperbacks and the rise of CliffsNotes. But comics versions of texts in other genres have become prevalent again recently. The 9/11 Report was given a graphic adaptation in 2006. Comic book author Gareth Hinds reimagined Beowulf as a graphic novel in 2007. The “Graphic Freud Series,” which launched in 2012, adapts some of Freud’s most notorious works, such as “The Wolf Man” and “Studies in Hysteria,” in comic form. The show-and-tell nature of comics invites readers to step in and play diagnostician, providing visual as well as verbal cues to what Freud encountered. The Classics Illustrated series itself has seen a revival: in 2011, the comic book adaptation of Nicholas Nickleby was released, the series’ first new title since the 1960s.

Adrienne Raphel Adrienne Raphel is the author of What Was It For (forthcoming in 2017), winner of the Rescue Press Black Box Poetry Prize, and the chapbook But What Will We Do, winner of the Seattle Review Chapbook Contest. She writes for the New Yorker online, and her work has also appeared in the Paris Review Daily and Lana Turner Journal, among other publications. Raphel earned an MFA in poetry from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and she is currently a PhD candidate in English at Harvard University.

Keywords: art comics education graphic novels MBA Scott McCloud Lynda Barry Apple case study